Friday, 17 April 2015

The Power of Play

Spielzeugmuseum photo by Andreas Praefcke
I’m not one for writing “what I did on my holiday” blog posts or plastering Facebook with vacation snapshots, but I’m making an exception for my recent visit to Salzburg’s amazing Spielzeugmuseum (or toy museum in English). Actually, the word “toy” was a bit of a misnomer, because although it did feature loads of toys, the museum’s emphasis was firmly on play. Everywhere you looked, children were playing, doing awesome stuff like:

Writing on the walls
Building amazing marble runs

Constructing fabulous feats of engineering
In an age where children are routinely plonked down in public places with an iPad to keep them quiet, the museum environment almost felt like a political statement in favour of hands-on, interactive play. A quote by Friedrich Schiller is proudly displayed in the museum’s lobby:

Play is the only thing that makes man complete

So far, so perfect. But I did think that the museum missed a trick in terms of getting grown-ups involved in the play. Consider this notice, and how my wife interpreted it:

A couple of parents were helping their kids with the construction toys, but I also saw lots of other mums and dads who were very bored indeed. My kids are really too old to need much help from me, so of course I sat soberly on the sidelines while they had all the fun.


Yes, dear reader, I’m afraid I dived straight in and played on my own. Here is my multi-level marble run:

And I also built this, er, thing:

In my defence as an engineer, it deliberately wasn’t meant to look like anything, because I wanted to experiment with the materials. So often, when I’m writing, I find myself constrained by form and function, so this was a way to play without boundaries or judgement. I resisted the urge to put wheels on for a long time, but there were so many cool options that I eventually succumbed (after the photo was taken).
The atmosphere of the toy museum was infectious. My eldest daughter is fifteen, and according to social norms should probably have been checking her emails or making arch comments on Twitter. Instead, she made the excellent scooter pictured on the right!

I don’t know if I felt more comfortable playing with children’s toys because of being a kids’ writer and therefore feeling closer to that mindset. Or maybe it’s because I’m childish? Ironically, I don’t always feel that comfortable in social situations, so I can only conclude that there’s something about the play environment that makes me feel secure. I warmly remember scampering all over soft play areas before my daughters got too old to need an escort. And “warmly” is an appropriate word – climbing up, down and through narrow padded spaces was always an excellent workout!

Perhaps I’m being unfair to other adults. After all, a couple of alcoholic drinks seem to bring out the playful side in anyone (although it’s sometimes followed by a destructive tantrum unmatched by any two-year-old). And what is an event like Comic Con, if not an excuse for several thousand adults to play at dressing up as their fictional idols?

While children will play anywhere, perhaps adults need a permissive space in which to relax and allow themselves to play – an Xbox, a board game, an adult colouring-in book or even Troy and Abed’s Dreamatorium from the TV series Community:

(Incidentally, I could probably write a whole post about Troy and Abed, two characters who spend their whole lives playing, in preference to “boring” adult responsibilities)

For this blog post, my permissive space was an A6 notebook on a British Airways flight back from Salzburg. I hope the results of my word play have pleased you, but if not, it doesn’t matter – play is always a journey and never a destination.



  1. What a joyful post! Gotta say, the couple of days I have found myself wondering whether I've lost the ability to have fun and be playful ... maybe a trip to Salzburg is in order :-)

  2. Well I'm glad you got to enjoy your playtime because if I were your other half I would definitely be on the rampage after discovering you posted that picture! Looks like a terrific place and oh for the ability to embrace play again without a care!